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June 30, 2010

Archives: August 13, 2007

Filed under: Uncategorized — thirdxlucky @ 12:15 am

I wrote this on a pay-per-minute Internet terminal in a hostel in Johannesburg. It was intended for my travel blog, which I was updating regularly at that point. I never posted it because I could never finish it. I wrote a lot about race and racism while I was in Africa, but I never finished any of it. I’m not sure I would have the guts to post it if I had. My blog had roughly 900 readers subscribed to it, many of whom I convinced myself were only interested in cute pictures of penguins. The “Caveat,” in addition to screaming white guilt!, is a pretty good indication of how embattled I felt in general.

Eventually, it dawned on me that I was so aggravated by my audience because they liked my writing. And told me so, in gushy exclamation-point riddled LiveJournal commentary prose, constantly. This made me incredibly uncomfortable because, for the most part, I didn’t think my writing was any good. I figured they must either be mocking me or stupid. Bit of a Groucho Marx complex. “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”

This made me into kind of an asshole – which I regret. I’m mostly over it. But I still don’t know what to say about racism.

Culture of Fear

Caveat: Since I started traveling, I’ve been thinking a lot about how people construct space as “safe” or “dangerous”. I’m going to go out on a limb and talk a little bit of politics in this entry. It was bound to happen eventually. After all, I am in Africa and I’m not totally insensible. Enough people are reading this that I’ll probably offend somebody. This is normally where I’d apologize in advance for having opinions, but I’m trying to quit doing that. I will say that my impressions are cursory, that my critical analysis of racial politics is naive at best, and as such, this is a relatively undirected exploration of some ideas, and not a thesis or manifesto in any form. This means that I’m not interested in arguing about or defending it, since as far as I know, every word of if could very well be “wrong” or a product of my own ignorance. I am open to discussion and further opportunities to educate myself, especially from people who are more conversant with these issues than I am. Here we go…

Night caught me by surprise this time. I’d been expecting the sun to set about half an hour later than it actually did, so when I reached the darkened glass doors of the otherwise windowless mall-complex, my heart caught briefly in my throat. It was as if I’d looked just looked out to find the city streets flooded. Gingerly, I stepped back inside the lighted building and dug in my pocket for my rented cell phone.

“In Nairobi, they’ll pull a gun on you and demand your wallet. In Johannesburg, they’ll just shoot you and take it.”

Cities like Johannesburg and Nairobi have instilled in me an almost superstitious reaction to sundown. Places that that seem perfectly accessible in daylight take on, to my subconscious mind, an aura of incontestable impassability after nightfall. This isn’t typical of me; at home, I walk everywhere, regardless of the hour. I have no qualms about navigating New York City subways in the middle of the night nor taking a bus back from the pub in London. I’m cautious, but comfortable doing it, despite the fact that people get assaulted, robbed and raped in these cities all the time. I make an effort not to fall victim to exaggerated and paranoid messages from the “culture of fear” which, rather than encouraging conscientiousness, teach women especially to be afraid of the dark.

But in the cities of South America and Africa, I often find myself hastening through the fading afternoon light, in a hurry to slip behind some locked and security guarded door before the sun hits the horizon line – not so much as a conscious act of reasoned precaution, but impelled by a knot of urgency in my gut, as if the city undergoes some alchemical transformation at sunset and only this magical formula can protect me from impeding disaster…

Why do I encounter African cities as so much more “dangerous” than others of comparable size?Part of it is unfamiliarity with my surroundings; partly, it’s exposure to fear-mongering media imagery and my own subconscious ethnocentrism: difference equals danger; some is simply an awareness of statistics, such as the famous one that Johannesburg has an average of 50 murders per day – but largely it’s informed by the attitudes around me. In Buenos Aires, my Porteño friends laughed at my hesitation to catch taxis on the street. Kidnapping-by-cab-driver, while perhaps not entirely an urban legend, was evidently not enough of an issue in that area for people living there to worry seriously about it. After this, I flagged down cabs at will and never had any problems beyond a few harrowingly bad drivers (and one guy who cursed me out in Spanish a kicked me out of his car because I’d slammed the door too hard…)

But in Nairobi, the concerned concierge at our hotel insisted that yes, we really did need to call a taxi if we wanted to go half-way round the block; my host in Cape Town pointed out, “This way on Long Street is nice, but please don’t go the other way or you’ll get mugged;” security walls throughout Johannesburg are frosted with barbed wire and electric fencing; and the one thing you hear repeated by everybody is: Don’t walk around after dark. Don’t walk around after dark. Don’t walk around after dark. So, since my primary survival tactic while traveling is to follow the lead and advice of those who actually know the place, I don’ t walk around after dark. I don’t even walk from place to place after dark. I pretty much go to the place I’m staying and stay there. And if I get unexpectedly caught out after dark, I feel nervous and uncomfortably helpless.

I’m somewhat skeptical as to what degree this concern is realistic and to what degree it’s the paranoia of the privileged. One of the most pleasant nights I’ve had here was the time in Kampala when my Danish friend Kristian – with Keenan, Eva and me in tow – strolled out of the mzungu* oasis of a hostel where our volunteer group was staying, walked right past the security gate without stopping to ask directions or even “is it safe for white people to walk around here?”, hopped on the first matatu that passed by, went into town and saw a movie, as if this were just something people did. This would strike some as reckless behavior. The matatu ride alone sounds like an insane action, considering that these overcrowded and madly driven minibus taxis kill more people than any other form of transport in East Africa. But engaging in this particular form of insanity seems like a necessary part of the “authentic” African experience. And in the end, nothing happened except that we got to see the new Harry Potter flick and didn’t pay 30,000 Shillings for a cab to get there.

Still, I wouldn’t have done it in Nairobi. And even in Kampala – renowned as the safest and friendliest capitol in East Africa – I wouldn’t have done it without Kris, who is a towering Viking, speaks Swahili, and lived in Kenya as a child. (It galls my self-sufficient feminist soul that when I’m in a situation where I feel vulnerable, my first instinct is to find the largest, most competent man I can trust and stick to him like glue – while the pragmatic survivalist in me knows it lets me do things and go places that I wouldn’t have the physical strength, wherewithal or social standing to hack on my own. But that’s a whole different entry.) To be fair, the only times on this trip that I have found myself in immediate danger were both because I was in an unfamiliar part of some city late at night.

Even if the fear of darkness is exaggerated, the stories of assured and inescapable violence apocryphal, this paranoia is not just that of the naive foreigner faced with an alien environment; it is fully indulged in by the local population. In Nairobi, you literally watch the streets emptying at 6pm, when everything is shut and barred, ugh I hate this sentence. I can’t work on this any more. Fuck this. I’m going to go eat food and write postcards.

*Mzungu is the ubiquitous East-African word for “white guy.” According to Lonely Planet, it’s derived from a Swahili word verb that means “to wander around aimlessly.”



  1. Have I ever told you how much I appreciate your thinking and writing? You’ve had a tremendous influence on what I think and how I think. Your willingness to share your thoughts on all kinds of subjects, from the very personal to the very global to the very abstract is a great inspiration to me.

    Comment by Corvinity — July 4, 2010 @ 1:20 pm | Reply

    • Thank you, Asa. 🙂 I really value your opinion as a thinker and writer as well as as a friend, so that means a lot to me.

      Comment by thirdxlucky — July 4, 2010 @ 3:53 pm | Reply

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